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REVIEW / 'THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER' : Cast Gives Old Comedy New Life : A group of talented stars revives an overworked play about a meddlesome house guest who intrudes on a socialite's family.


If ever there was a tired, overworked warhorse of the stage (outside of the canons of Shakespeare and Simon, that is), it's the 1939 comedy "The Man Who Came to Dinner." The play is a favorite of school and community theater groups across the country, despite the fact of being fraught with references that were obscure when the play made its debut on Broadway--many of the names riddled through George Kaufman and Moss Hart's script will be familiar, if at all, only to grandparents and cultural historians.

So why is the Conejo Players Theater dragging it up one more time (and why did the Santa Paula Theater Center announce that it, too, was going to mount the play this year)? Perhaps because, dated material notwithstanding, the play is extraordinarily funny. And the Santa Paulans won't be doing "The Man Who Came to Dinner" after all, making the current production the only game in the county.

Richard Winterstein stars as Sheridan Whiteside, the celebrated author, lecturer and wit who slips on a suburban Ohio socialite's doorstep and is forced to remain in the house until his injury heals.

At first thrilled to bask in Whiteside's presence, the Stanley family soon realizes that its "guest" is a caustic, obnoxious boor, a blustering, self-centered manipulator and a man who loves to meddle.

Like many characters in the play, Whiteside was created as a reflection of a real person; in Whiteside's case, Alexander Woolcott. Those to whom Woolcott's name means nothing might imagine (depending on your own age) a combination of Orson Welles and Truman Capote, or of Elvis Costello and Rush Limbaugh--only more so, and minus the politics.

Ancillary characters are patterned on British songwriter and dramatist Noel Coward, actress Gertrude Lawrence and Harpo Marx, although here (and perhaps wisely), Sheri DeMieri plays the actress as a cross between Debbie Reynolds and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Ryff Wolf's "Banjo" is closer to Richard Simmons than to Harpo Marx.

A near look-alike for Raymond Burr, Winterstein is the focal point throughout the show and deservedly so--at one point, he focuses a glower upon his victims that's nothing short of magnificent.

Still, the supporting cast measures up: Karen Mallicoat as his resilient assistant, Terry Fishman as the pseudo-Coward Beverly Carlton (whose featured song, "What Am I to Do," was written as a Coward parody by Cole Porter), Jack McGee and Marjorie A. Berg as the senior members of the Stanley family, Pamela Matheson as Mr. Stanley's dotty sister, Amy Hochstein as put-upon nurse Miss Preen, and Douglas Reese and Laura Russell as the young adult Stanley children. As the reporter Bert Jefferson, D. A. Butcher is more resolute than dashing, all the better to provide a target for Whiteside's malice.

Watch for Susan Pollard and Laura Tennenhouse as a couple of Mrs. Stanley's socialite friends; their brief appearance is one of the show's many highlights.

Stuart Berg directed his cast--several of whom are newcomers to the Conejo Players--with great assurance, and set designer Darrel Gustafson's realization of the Stanley home is lovely.

A relic from the days when an evening at the theater was just that, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" is three acts long, and that means long--not "Hamlet" long, but well over 2 1/2 hours. But the wit doesn't flag for a moment. Well, maybe not more than a few moments, if you don't know who Hedy Lamarr or Polly Adler were.


"The Man Who Came to Dinner" continues through July 24 at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. Performances are Thursday through Saturday nights at 8:30. Tickets are $8 Thursdays, $10 Fridays and Saturdays, with group, senior citizen and student discounts available. The July 16 performance will be signed for the hearing-impaired. For reservations or information, call 495-3715.

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